The Slatest

In 1997, U.S. Troops Killed a “Drug Smuggler” at the Border Who Was Actually an American Teenager Herding Livestock

A portrait photo of Esequiel Hernandez.
Esequiel Hernández.
The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández/POV/Handout courtesy of the Hernández Family

Donald Trump, inflamed by Fox News’ coverage of Central Americans who plan to seek asylum en masse in the U.S., signed an order Wednesday deploying National Guard troops to the Mexican border. The New York Times adds context to Trump’s decision, reporting that many military officials oppose the use of troops for domestic security operations—in part because Marines who were once deployed to the border to hunt Mexican drug smugglers ended up shooting and killing an American citizen on American soil instead.

The incident, which is the subject of a 2007 documentary called The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández, took place on May 20, 1997. Hernández was an 18-year-old from the tiny town of Redford, Texas, who was tending his family’s goats on the U.S. side of the border on that day when he was encountered and tracked by a unit of four Marines who—unbeknownst to Hernández or anyone else in his community—had been deployed to patrol the area for smugglers. Hernández, who was carrying a .22 rifle he used to ward off wild animals, apparently shot twice in the direction of the Marines, though they were roughly 200 yards away from him in heavy camouflage and it’s not clear that he had seen them. Several minutes later, the group’s leader, a 22-year-old San Francisco native named Clemente Bañuelos, fired at Hernández with an M16, killing him. It was the first time since the Kent State massacre in 1970 that a U.S. citizen had been killed in the United States by the military.

Armed military operations at the border were halted soon afterward, and the U.S. government agreed to pay Hernández’s family $1.9 million to settle a lawsuit. A grand jury voted against indicting Bañuelos, whose attorney argued that Hernández appeared to fit the profile of a “scout” for drug smugglers when the Marines saw him and said Bañuelos fired in self-defense because he believed Hernández was preparing to fire toward the Marines again.

Hernández died on a hill within sight of his family’s cinderblock home. A 1997 Houston Chronicle article about his death noted that he was killed near “a well-known crossing spot on the Rio Grande known as El Polvo, Spanish for dust.”

Minutes ago, the Pentagon announced the creation of a “new border security support cell” to help carry out Trump’s order. Administration sources have said that the Guard will be used, as it was during 2006 and 2010 border deployments, to provide logistical and surveillance “support” to domestic law enforcement authorities. A Pentagon spokesman addressing reporters Thursday, though, said it has not yet been determined whether the Guard troops deployed this time around will be armed, and noted that they would maintain a right of self-defense. To dust we return.